Life drawing can be an exercise to practice and sharpen up drawing skills, or a warm-up or preparation for a painting or sculpture, or just loosening up for designing. It can also be a way to learn how to draw, and it's usually fun, and it's always challenging. So how do you learn to draw from life? Or how to draw better? Or how to really see? Setting simple exercises can help, so here we present some classic exercises which have helped many people practice, learn and develop over the years.
If you haven't got a teacher you might want to try some of these yourself for variety, or just the stimulus of doing things differently. Unfamiliar and even uncomfortable activities can surprise and enlighten, and help discover fresh ways to work, as well as new media. If you are doing exercises it can really help not to focus on results, just be in the present and do the task as it has been set, then see how it turns out. Keep an open mind, and be willing to stretch.
Some people say there are no mistakes, others say the person who has never made a mistake has never made anything, and some even say to learn to draw you first have to make a thousand mistakes. So let's get started! You can do it.
Measure by Measure
Is a human being really eight heads tall? Measure it and see. You can draw boxes onto your page or just a ruler with eight sections, putting the head into the top section. Is the torso three heads long? Or just two and a half? Is there a vertical line down the middle, or near it, that you can measure out from to decide how wide things are? You can actually just draw into a grid, and hold up a pencil or piece of paper to measure what you see. You can also measure the spaces around the figure, or measure the length of limbs or of boxes which you invent to contain limbs, hands, feet, or other body parts. It may help to draw a stick figure and put measurements on it, then draw over them. You can actually see very skilled artists sometimes stop to measure and put down a series of ruler-like marks for reference.
A Handful of Change
Switch hands. Right-handed? Draw with your left hand. Left-handed? Draw with your right. This feels unfamiliar and even shakey... and look what happens! Then try drawing with something in each hand, or switching hands in the middle of a drawing, or even drawing with both hands at the same time. Try using different media in each hand, too.
Gesture Drawing - Life in a Minute
Thirty seconds, one minute, and two minute poses are a challenge and a stimulus. Almost no one can do a finished drawing in that time, so don't depress yourself by trying that! Just record quick poses as essentials, at the most basic level marking down a stick figure showing the pose, then maybe some broad shadow or key lines. If you draw with something faint and broad such as the side of pencil or charcoal, or a brush with light wash, you can then work darker on top of that with more specific detail as time allows. And you could do all your quick sketches on one page, even overlapping each other. You may find this exercise helps you to see the essentials of a pose in a flash and to be more decisive about what you put down, and you may also find that after short poses long ones seem much easier and clearer. In North America these quick sketches are called Gesture Drawing - is the act of drawing a gesture or is it capturing a gesture?
Negative Space Exploration
Negative Space describes the space around and between things. Do you see a space between a model's arm and body? Between the feet? Between the model and the next object? What shape is this space? If you can draw the space around and between things, the things can take care of themselves. You can simplify the negative space if you want - is it roughly a triangle, a square, a rectangle? Those are all good starts that can be refined, revised and built on.
Out of the Darkness
If you like making a mess, try covering a whole sheet of paper in black charcoal, then use a flexible eraser or putty rubber to lift the black away to form grey or white shapes and lines. You can also do this by working onto black paper, for example with light chalk or pastel.
Start with a mid-tone paper, preferably grey in colour. You can then add lighter tones and darker ones, so you work away from the mid-tone. This can work well with chalk and charcoal, but it also works well with ink or watercolour, for which you will need an opaque white such as Chinese White watercolour or a white gouache.
Also called bits on the side, this can be especially good when you can't see the whole pose clearly. Draw separate hands, feet, heads, or even knees. Many famous artists' drawings show little sub-sketches at the side of the page, depicting body parts or features they wanted to understand better. A good understanding of hands and feet is a big help, and since they are less recognisable than faces, you can use these sketches as spare parts to fill in details in other drawings.
Ban lines for a while and just draw with tone, for example using a fat stick of charcoal to put in dark areas and maybe an eraser to lighten them, and a finger or piece of cardboard to smudge and blend tones. It might help here to think about negative spaces, or use toned paper as in Grey Away above. But most importantly draw no lines and see what happens. Of course the opposite is to focus on just lines, as in the following exercises:
Give It Some Stick
Draw at arm's length with a stick as much as 1m long with charcoal attached to the end, or a dark pencil, or even a brush. This works well with bamboo or a light piece of wood, and usually you need an easel and a large piece of paper. It is amazing that you can draw like this and control the line you make. Do you find this makes you look more carefully, or simplify what you do?
Follow the Line
Just draw with line, following the outlines and contours of the figure. Line drawing is very precise and can be very frustrating, but line develops with practise. In fact possibly the best practice is to sit down and copy a master drawing, if necessary drawing a grid on the paper to get it right. That is usually how the Great Masters learned to draw. Fluency comes from practice - what seems a struggle today suddenly seems second nature days later. A variation of this involves not breaking your line, as follows:
Magnetic Line - Get Stuck In
Do not lift your pencil or brush from the page - whatever you do must be a continuous line or block of tone. You are stuck to the page and cannot leave it. You could do this slowly and carefully as a design, do it with a finger or stylus on a tablet or phone, or incredibly fast building up blocks of tone like the next one:
No Time to Think
Don't think and don't stop, just go with the flow, fast. Just draw continuously and do not stop at all, even for a second - this can be really good for short poses which simply happen too fast to think, and can create very clear, simple results that are better than long, involved drawings. The opposite of this is the following:
Look Before You Leap
Don't draw anything. Just sit there and look. Then perhaps move your hand over your page slowly in the shape of what you will draw - Chinese painters call this the Ghost Hand. Then when you are ready, carefully draw what you have rehearsed or visualised. For inspiration try reading Zen in the Art of Archery.
A variation of this is to study your subject without drawing, then take the subject away and draw from memory, then bring the subject back and compare to what you did.
Look No Hands!
Really this means "Look not at your hands", just draw without looking at the paper until you are done.
Erase nothing. There are no mistakes! Change nothing, erase nothing, just draw on top of what you have done! Draw in ink so you cannot change what you have done, possibly starting with diluted ink so you can work over it with darker ink. Do another drawing! Or draw on top of your dark lines with light chalk or white paint, then look at the spaces between all those figures. Or go on to do this:
Cut Me Up
Yes cut up your drawing, or drawings, then scatter the pieces randomly and form a collage from them. Or just fasten them together and make a new drawing based on them. Or even trade pieces with someone else and piece something together from there. This can be very interesting with papers of different colour, or even done in a digital medium.
And of course you can tear up your drawings to make papier mache strips, which may then show odd patterns from the drawings. Or you can pulp all that paper and use it to make new sheets of paper, or use the paper pulp to build up three dimensional objects - onto which you could then draw or print or paint.